When a franchise resorts to going down a prequel route, it’s usually a sign that the series has finally bled out and run dry of ideas like a tapped artery. It certainly seemed to be the case of the third film in the Underworld series, a string of movies that only made its Vampire vs Werewolf plot manage to only last for two movies before setting the clock back centuries to tell the tale of the origins of the toothy feud. However, what made Rise Of The Lycans a particularly strange attempt is that thanks to extensive flashbacks in the first movie, we’d already seen how all this shiznit got started, making for a movie that was utterly obsolete before the cameras ever started rolling.
And yet, flying in the face of the fact there was literally no real reason for this movie to exist at all, Rise Of The Lycans bizarrely ends up being arguably one of the best of a bad bunch despite having literally no surprises or franchies shattering revelations.
It’s 1402 and the war between Vampires and Werewolves has already been cooking for a couple of decades, but matters take an intriguing turn when the animalistic wolf creatures give birth to a being who can actually switch back to human form. Dubbed a “Lycan” and named Lucian, the child is raised by vampire elder Viktor who has visions of raising this hybrid species as slaves to guard their fanged masters while they sleep during the day. However, as we’re still around two thousand years away from William Shakespeare jotting down Romeo And Juliet, you could forgive the vampire lord from being blindsided by something as inevitable as his willful daughter falling in love with the muscular slave, but guess what?
Sonja and Lucian strain to keep their forbidden romance a secret as best that they can, but as Viktor forges ahead with his plan to weaponize the Lycans in his fight against the full fledged werewolves, Lucian’s more heroic tendencies threaten to blow the whole deal.
However after Sonja manages to aid her hairy lover in staging a mass escape of all the Lycans Viktor has forced Lucian to make, she is rumbled by her father who finally cottons on to what’s been going on under his roof and reacts much in the way you’d expect an immortal, bloodsucking tyrant would act once he learns that his daughter has been making the beast with two backs with an actual beast.
Imprisoning Sonja, Viktor plans on Lucian racing to her rescue, but another thing he hasn’t reckoned on is the defiant Lycan finally uniting the different species of werewolf against their cruel oppressors, but those of you familiar with the flashbacks from the orginal story know that things aren’t destined to have a happy ending…
Rise Of The Lycans is a curious beast; if you’ve been following the franchise it doesn’t tell you single thing you don’t already know and therefore utterly redundant – however, on the other hand, it proves to be something of highly effective jumping on point for newbies as it takes the convoluted back story and plainly lays it all out. Of course, the problem with that is that for best results, it requires someone to randomly start the franchise with its third entry which was an utterly illogical thing to expect back in 2009. Questionable marketing ploy aside, the prequel manages to do a surprisingly amount of things right, chiefly because the movie isn’t choking to death on it’s own backstory because… well, it is the backstory. It also builds on the the lengthy, medieval set, flashback sequence from the second Underground flick (easily the best moment from both films) by swapping out Matrix-style posing with leather coats and firearms for visuals more in line with Lord Of The Rings as the majority of the rain lashed battle scenes resemble that of Helm’s Deep with more howling. First time director, long time creature designer Patrick Tatopoulos keeps the frame looking nice and slick and the story free of complications as he doles out admittedly sick sights such as full on werewolf scraps as vampire knights cleave their shaggy heads from their shoulders with broad swords.
Of course, bitching visuals are cool and all, but the main reason any of this really works is the genuinely loyal (and oddly sweet) return of Michael Sheen and Bill Nighy, who recreate their roles of Lucian and Viktor respectively and devote far more effort than the movie probably deserves. Sheen dispels any sense of slumming – at this point in his career he’d already played Tony Blair and David Frost – by infusing Lucian with a dashing sense of rebellion like a skinwalking Sparticus, while Nighy takes his usual habit of going big for villian roles and spends his entire screentime being as dastardly as inhumanly possible as he rants and rages beneath pallid makeup and funky contact lenses. The switching out your established leads (no awkwardly cold Kate Beckinsale/Scott Speedman chemistry here) and bumping up the supporting actors to the main stage is usually the kiss of death, but here, you now have far more magnetic performances driving the film from a couple of world class talents who are obviously a enjoying the hell out of swinging swords and clanking around in armour. Bless ’em.
The movie also amusingly counteracts its Kate Beckinsale shaped hole by securing virtual look-alike Rhona Mitra to play Sonja in pretty much the same way Beckinsale played Selene and the prequel manages to nail the franchise’s themes of forbidden love and awesome vamp/wolf scraps way better than the previous two movies.
Of course, for all these good points, we can’t ignore the fact that a decent Underworld movie doesn’t usually mean that much and it’s somewhat worrisome that the best installment of the series so far is technically the one most devoid of originality – but it’s hard to be too harsh on it when you have the sight of hundreds of werewolves storming a castle and biting heads off wherever they go.
It ain’t big, it ain’t clever and it certainly isn’t necessary, but Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans is a movie that fully leans into the fact that we all know what’s going to happen and repays us by strangely deciding to not over complicate matter and simply gives that which we’ve craved after all along: a werewolf vs. vampire movie that isn’t buried under a ton of over-stylised bullshit and just cuts right to the chase.
Bolstered by over-qualified performances and some cool battle scenes, Underworld bizarrely finally finds its feet while stuck in prequel hell – something that’s hobbled many other superior franchises – and actually got me thinking “You know what? I’m actually Lycan this!”.